On burgers and intuition

Lately, a rare thought has been knock, knock, knocking on the door of my consciousness. It was: I Should Eat a Good Burger. I ignored it, to an extent, because I was busy with other things, there was good food in the fridge and burgers had seemed an inappropriate option. Late at night, way past dinner-time, while watching a movie, the thought (now turned want) came knocking again. This time it clearly wasn’t messing around. I had to have a burger. The only problem was that at this hour getting a good burger was next to impossible. So I lowered my expectations and off we went on hunt. It didn’t take long to reach… what else, but McD’s. I admit that stuffing myself with cheeseburgers brought a respite but the next day I still felt the burger quest was not over.

This time though we were smarter. Marcin (a true burger fan) decided we’re making them at home. Provided that you skip baking the buns and making fries from scratch, DIY burgers are easy and quick to prepare. We made the process a tad more complicated as we baked our own fries and caramelized the onions but we do love to spend some time in the kitchen together. The possibilities are endless, just pick your favorite ingredients. We decided on beef with parsley, mustard and spices, some offerings from the family garden: lettuce, rocket, tomatoes, red onions and home-made ketchup. To that we added some goat cheese and mustard (in my case, heaps of it).

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What can I say, home-made fast food tastes divine and at the same time can be full of good ingredients and devoid of crappy oils. One burger for dinner and another one for breakfast fully satisfied my desires. Marcin needed two more. What is a moral of this story? Listen to your instincts! Skipping meals or denying yourself what you crave can result in a sudden attack on junk food. If I honored my first thought, hopped to a shop and bought the missing ingredients we could have made the best burgers at home but there would be no story tell. I would end up better than at McD at night over a wilted cheeseburger (though night rides with the three of us, including the dog, on the empty streets of Warsaw are an attraction in itself for us).

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And what is your way of choosing what to eat? Do you eat whatever you come across, follow your instincts, taste or a particular diet? For someone like me, obsessed with studying nutrition and searching for answers on what is healthy to eat, the mind often comes in the way of intuition. Attaching morals to food happens to all of us to a certain degree as we are surrounded by opinions on what is “good” and “bad” to eat. On the other hand it’s impossible not to use intellect when sometimes what we have as a choice is hardly food anymore and the aggressive media messages successfully feed us various “truths” everyday.

This is one of my favorite subjects that I sometimes organize lectures on. Recently I talked about “good” fats and how to combine taste and pleasure with health as I truly believe they can go hand in hand when we broaden our horizons and learn to understand how intuition works. What is your way to eat well and healthy?

Endless summer

At the end of October, probably as the last person in Poland, I have finally realized that summer is over. Duh. Even though I do believe that both winter and fall have their own charm, they never were my favorite seasons. Each and every year my way of dealing with loss and saying goodbye to MY beloved season starts with denial. When denying the obvious becomes, well, a little bit embarrassing, I reach a state of anger. I become furious that I somehow missed another summer, even though I had more time this year and didn’t even go abroad. I’m still not saturated with fresh berries, didn’t spend enough time in my parents’ summer house, didn’t ride my bike often enough, didn’t stretch on warm grass as much as I would like to, didn’t go for as many long walks with the dog as I could, haven’t had enough ice-cream, warm evenings out, and definitely there weren’t enough picnics! I begin to consider possible approaches: hibernation, moving to a warmer country, hoping for an unexpected return of sunny and warm days without the need for all the constricting layers of clothing, in my favorite feather-weight dress…

In face of the melancholy I reached for the photos from this summer, spent mostly at home, and I have to admit something. The pictures tell that apart from endless hours spent in the kitchen of mine (and of others) creating, carving in and photographing food alternated with time spent worrying (not visible in the pictures) I have managed to also (!) find time to: eat ice-cream, travel with bikes, cars and trains: on an orange school bus in the countryside, in an old convertible on the highway, in a camper full of toys babysitting a two year old; I even refused to travel on a tractor decorated for the harvest festival. I have slept on many beds and trembled from cold on a foam mattress in a tent. I have picked radishes and herbs, watched frogs, collected snails and slugs, walked barefoot, swung in hammocks, threw frisbee and swam. I drunk wine on a plaza and beer in a hostel. I made fires and watched for falling stars from the sleeping bag. I got excited with sunsets like it was the first time. I laid flat in the park charging batteries like a reptile and slept on benches like a bum. I visited new places as well as the sentimental ones. I played a part in a community garden and a shop. I picked cherries in the country and I danced till dawn on concrete in the city center. I grinned at a wedding and cried at a funeral. I giggled with a friend. I hugged and got hugged. I met new people and traveled with complete strangers. I told them important private stuff and flooded them with babble. I was soaked in rain, cold and trembling as well as warm and toasty. I even had my re-debut in solo traveling after.. 17 years!

If I took more pictures I would probably have to admit to many more good experiences of this ordinary summer after a great journey. I am grateful for reminders like these, contradicting the permanent “never enough” state.  Hereby I declare:

1. Last summer was beautiful and beautiful enough.

2. Winter is coming. Resistance is futile.

3. Summer will be back.

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“Sweet makes you dizzy, bitter makes you healthy” – on wise culinary customs and traditions of Southeast Asia

Although it’s not a big subject on the blog, our travels are also a search for answers on how to eat to stay healthy. At home, I expand my nutrition knowledge and during travels I peek into the plates and customs of local people. I do so to find out what do the communities living close to nature and honoring culinary traditions eat to stay strong and healthy. While at home,  I also ask older people what used to be eaten in the past, what not and why. How did people cook and combine the ingredients. You may probably guess that the culinary traditions don’t have too much in common with the modern diets. Nevertheless, before the scientists started researching our plates, people used mostly their intuition and the gift of observation. With good effects, too! Meanwhile we, for vague reasons, treat those traditions as relics or mistakes highlighted by the modern science, something to be protected from.

Especially now, when the so called healthy diet starts to be associated only with subtraction, stress and threats. Eat red meat and you will get cancer, eat butter and you will die of heart disease, drink sodas and you will end up with diabetes. There are also the -free diets (gluten-free, wheat-free, meat-free, diary-free, salt-free, sugar-free, saturated fat-free, etc. – cross out as appropriate). We shouldn’t rely only on scientific proof or quit yet another food group but also can take a dive into the past and the world around us. I have no doubt that some food items can cause harm to some people — I am one of them. But I do believe that throwing food out of a diet, one type after another, can’t be the only solution. We need to think in broader terms, putting emphasis on the causes. Is it the declining quality of the produce, our current lifestyles, the way we prepare the dishes or if we prepare them at all, how we combine foods and in what proportions, etc.

There is a saying in Lao: “sweet makes you dizzy, bitter makes you healthy”. Laotian cuisine is not backed up by the science but the people know very well what is good for them. It can even be sugar, which used as a “spice” can balance other tastes in a value meal. This is an article on what we think are valuable habits and practices of the nations of Southeast Asia (mainly Vietnam and Laos which were the culinary highlights for us). We took a sneak peak into their kitchens and culinary customs and took out what we think is important (not sure if they would tell us the same). So here it goes:

Vietnam meal preparations

preparing the meal together

CELEBRATION

This is the most striking for me. Whole families helping themselves from the communal bowls, comfortably sat on bamboo mats or by the table. At home and in the restaurant, in the storefronts and guesthouses, at the markets. Workers detached from other problems on a lunch break. Friends on a picnic. Nobody rushing anyone, people joking and laughing and eating with pleasure. Obviously, under stress the digestive system shuts down and the metabolism slows down. They seem to be aware of that.

Vietnam tet dinner at closed restaurant

so romantic – a dinner for two on a real china set in a closed restaurant

THREE SQUARE MEALS

Local people eat what they want, and that just happens to be a hearty soup for breakfast or a fully-balanced lunch with favorite protein, vegetables, herbs and of course rice. Between meals fruit and sweet coffee. Not much need or space left for junk snacking.

Vietnam lunch break

Lunch break at work. I love Asians because they like to sit the same way I do!

EATING ALL PARTS OF THE ANIMAL

Asians love meat, or any part of the animal for that matter. Something that disgusts many of us. Soups based on huge bones. Offal, trotters, chicken feet, melted fat and crunchy skin. Blood and bile. Nothing gets wasted. It’s not only frugality but also a healthier choice. Offal is one of the most nutritious food groups. Muscle meats, which the western world mostly consumes, when eaten in large amounts have a pro-inflammatory effect. It can be balanced by the addition of elements with a different aminoacid profile. For example with the anti-inflammatory and joint-building collagen, which we can find in the bone broth or the skin. The Chinese also know what they’re doing, munching on  those chicken feet…

Laos meat bile and blood on the market

meat, blood and bile

Laos meat on the market

BALANCE

Every meal is a symphony of the five flavors, raw and cooked ingredients, the crunchy and the melting, dry and wet, light and heavy. Mastery of taste. Balancing the hard to digest foods with those that support digestion. Getting vitamins, antioxidants and fiber from fresh foods together with the good assimilation of minerals from cooked ones. Balancing the cooling ingredients with those that make you warm, ones that are moisturizing with others that dry the lungs and ease expectoration, etc.

cambodia salad

five flavors in a salad

MEETING INDIVIDUAL NEEDS

Plenty of possibilities to adjust the dish according to your taste. After all, each of us has different needs and limitations. The starting point can be a soup of which final taste depends on the ingredients chosen by the eaters at the table. A salad which you can taste before serving and have it seasoned your way. A do-it-yourself barbecue where you grill your favorite morsels and combine them with an appropriate amount of greens and sauces. I believe a recipe should only be a starting point and a suggestion which we modify according to our needs. Indeed, taste is one of the ways of the body telling us what it needs!

Laos adding lots of greens to foe

some like it green

USE OF LOCAL PRODUCE

The cuisine changes with the regions and availability of fresh produce. The south of Vietnam, for example, is in part culinary different from the north. At home we are used to being able to buy whatever we fancy. Meanwhile, the delicious banana cake or the ice-cold sugarcane juice from the South are hard to find in Hanoi. Rightly so, because what can be a cure in one climate, can make us weaker in another.

Vietnam greens on the market-2

FRESHNESS

This is most visible in Vietnam and I have already mentioned that earlier. Each and every client of the street stall will get the dish prepared freshly for him or her. It is not common to cook in advance and reheat, put the half-finished products into jars or freeze for later. The pastes do not come out of a package. Vegetables, fruit and herbs look as they were just picked and that’s also how they taste. Be it at home or at a street stall, the food is made from scratch and does not come from a factory.

Malaysia leaves and herbs on the market Vietnam market vegetable bonanza Vietnam greens on the market Vietnam market vegetable bonanza-2

DIGESTIBILITY

For some foods to be healthy and easily digestible we need to prepare and combine them correctly. In Asia, it is not a uncommon to soak the rice for many hours before cooking (which happens to improve its digestibility), serve meat dishes with a small bowl of broth for digestion, add ox bile to tenderize meaty laap salad or use digestion enhancing combinations of bitters, herbs and spices.

Vietnam meal with greens and bitters

clams with herbs and bitter vegetables

FORAGED FOODS

There still are places in Asia where they grow plants and rear animals using traditional methods, or even hunt and gather. Especially visible in Vietnam (plant-wise) and in Laos (meat-wise). Controversial for us, especially when the endangered species of animals are involved. The variety of herbs and leaves served with every dish in Vietnam is really fascinating though. Some of them are still picked in the surrounding area. They have much more aroma and nutritional value than plants grown on chemically fertilized soil or substrate. The same can be said about animals fed with industrial feeds.

Laos leaves and herbs on the market

greens at a Laotian market

Laos free range cattle

free-range everywhere

Obviously, Southeast Asia is no different from the rest of the world in that the culinary traditions slowly give way to industrial farming, fast-food joints, and imported goods. Lifestyles are changing in every way and the people are getting fatter. It striked us the most in the richer Thailand, where you can find 7elevens with cheap “lunches” on almost every corner. In this region though, there still are many possibilities to take a look at old customs and combine some of them with the current knowledge. The same observations can be performed at home, though sometimes it’s easier to change the perspective and looking from the outside see that some “truths” we take for granted apply to our backyards only and are not universal. We can even reach a conclusion that the trendy, healthy diets of the modern world are not necessarily always good for us and that using them can sometimes offset our invaluable instincts. Why not combine the new with the old?

Pulau Pangkor burger stall

Indonesian cuisine (the good, the bad and the ugly)

It was quite easy to familiarize ourselves with the Indonesian language, at least as far as the culinary art is concerned. Several simple words, such as nasi (rice), mie (noodles), goreng (fried), rebus (cooked), bakar (grilled), sambal (paste, sauce), telur (egg), ikan (fish), udang (prawn), ayam (chicken), sayur (vegetables), etc. were enough to achieve an introductory level of knowledge. Combine one with another and you get the names of popular dishes: ayam goreng, udang rebus or ikan bakar, to name just a few. Gula means sugar and gula-gula are sweets and so we’ve reached desserts… As there is no inflection (that we know of), we felt encouraged to build simple sentences during our lazy time at the seaside, commenting on the reality around us (in this case mostly kambing makan ikan aka “goat eats fish”). On the other hand, Indonesian cuisine abounds in innumerable rice dishes with additions on the side (nasi this, nasi that). Most of them, despite our (not so) earnest efforts, we were not able to tell apart.

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nasi…campur?

Obviously, taste is an individual thing, so this is our subjective take on the best and worst Indonesian dishes. We encourage you to go and check by yourself. Let’s start with complaints so we can finish in ecstasy!

THE BAD

BUTTERED AND FRIED EVERYTHING PLUS FRIED CHICKEN

It seems there is no such food item in Indonesia that seems inappropriate to be breaded in batter and deep fried. Eggs, meats, offal, bananas, cassava, tofu… everything tastes almost the same and is usually made in advance. Coated stuff soaked in oil served at room temperature? No, thank you. As far as chicken is concerned, it is the least favorite kind of meat for both of us, so we won’t tell you much about ayam goreng – maybe the most popular dish of all.

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This nice lady finds her fried snacks delicious

PADANG CUISINE

The famous cuisine from West Sumatra, which became popular around the entire country and beyond. Behind the restaurants’ front windows you can see pyramids of plates presenting available dishes. I will forever remember the picture of empty, dark streets illuminated by the windows full of piled up pottery, I’ve seen when were riding through Padang at night. When you sit down, lots of small plates with several dishes arrive on the table. You only pay for what you’ve touched. The dishes are prepared in the morning, stay all day without refrigeration and are usually served without heating. Often, in this kind of restaurants, we were very disappointed – both with taste and freshness. There is one dish though – called beef rendang – that saved the honor of Padang cuisine for us (more on this later).

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Padang restaurant (source: Wikipedia: http://commons.wikimedia.org//wiki/File:Hidangan_restoran_Padang_di_Sukabumi.JPG#mediaviewer//File:Hidangan_restoran_Padang_di_Sukabumi.JPG)

GADO-GADO (THE UGLY)

Learning about the ingredients of this salad I was sure I’m gonna love it. Sauce made of peanuts which I adore. Cooked vegetables that I love. Hard-boiled eggs I won’t say no to. Add some sprouts, raw veggies, and krupuk crisps (resembling shrimp crisps) and voila! The whole is one of the least attractive-looking dishes in the world, though for us it was not really the main complaint. What’s worse, it’s that the taste is also one big con-fusion. I apologize to Indonesians, but this national pride is hard for me to swallow. We didn’t try many gado-gados, so I decided to recreate the recipe at home, thinking I will find a way for this combination of ingredients to finally click together. It didn’t.

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Usually it looks worse

ABC – CRUSHED ICE IS WHAT’S FOR DESSERT

Ais kacang is usually called ABC (an abbreviation of Air Batu Campur, meaning “mixed ice”). Heaps of crushed ice drenched in technicolor syrups with some fresh or preserved fruit. End of story. Long time ago, it was only ice with red beans which evolved over time into more varied forms.

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An elegant version of ABC in an elegant restaurant in Semarang

THE GOOD

FRIED RICE aka NASI GORENG

The simplest comfort food. Driven by the vegetable oil phobia, I was steering clear of this dish for some time. Finally I gave in, because, damn, it’s just that good! Heap of rice fried with eggs, finely chopped vegetables, possibly some meat, sweet soy sauce called kecap manis. Trivial, greasy and yummy. The greasiness is balanced by the addition of some fresh greens. On the top of that some of that delicious fried shallots sprinkle…

indonesian food nasi goreng

Hot hot heat in the kitchen

NASI LEMAK, NASI UDUK

We’ve been writing about nasi lemak while in Malaysia. Simple pleasures. Rice cooked in coconut milk with spices, some fried anchovies called ikan bilis, peanuts, sambal. In a loaded version you can also get hard-boiled eggs, cucumber slices and meat. Often wrapped up in banana leaf. A must!

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Evening anchovies catch

GRILLED FISH, SAMBAL AND RICE

Ikan bakar! At the seaside, freshly caught, covered in sweet and spicy marinade and put on a barbecue. Served with spicy sambal. Any sambal, for that matter, is great in Indonesia!

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FISH IN BANANA LEAVES

Fish, herbs and spices. Wrapped up and steamed. Wonderful. We’ve also tried a similar dish with small poultry (a pigeon???) served the same way and it was also delicious. A must!

indonesian food fish in banana leaves semarang-

BEEF RENDANG

The most famous representative of the un-favorite Padang cuisine. Popular also in Malaysia and Singapore, it originated from Western Sumatra and the Mingkabau ethnic group (which we’ve mentioned before). Beef cooked for hours on end in coconut milk and spices. Dry but delicious. I have to finally cook my own.

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Beef rendang – third from the left,  first row

TEMPEH

We like fermented soy. Slices of fried tempeh appeared in almost any rice-and-toppings dish on Java. At home I soak them in soy sauce with powdered ginger and garlic and fry. So good!

LIQUID FRUIT AKA SHAKE

Nowhere in Southeast Asia was the choice of fruit shakes as wide as in Indonesia. I loved the sweet and sour pineapple shakes the most, they are especially tasty, juicy and ripe here… Marcin, on the other hand, was a devoted fan of mango. Perfect!

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Melon and orange

Cooking in the summer heat – Laotian cucumber salad

The record-breaking heat of the last weeks left us with no desire to cook while our thoughts turned in the direction of sun-baked Laos. Laotians, like other nations we visited during our Asian trip, seemed to be unfazed by the temperatures, even standing by the barbecue in 35 degrees Celsius. Luckily, there are also many local dishes that demand minimal or no time spent over fire. Various salads, for example.

Laos barbecue stall-1832 Laos noodle salad-1813

Laotian dishes can be a great solution for hot days in any climate. We decided to go for the delicious, classic cucumber salad (tam mak taeng). It is the twin sister of a more popular papaya salad (tam mak hoong). All other ingredients are the same, so the taste of both salads is very similar. Instead of imported papaya, I went for the Polish cucumbers in season.

Cucumber salad may sound innocent and bland but the Laotian edition is anything but that. The explosive aromas of fish sauce, lime juice and hellishly hot chilies burst through the apathy and sun-faded colors, twisting the nostrils, bringing out drops of sweat onto face and successfully cooling the body.

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In Laos, tam mak hoong or tam mak taeng don’t exist without the addition of unfiltered and unpasteurized, extremely aromatic or even fetid, fish sauce called padaek. This product probably never crosses any borders, so we will recreate the taste using standard fish sauce and shrimp paste. A little nasty in flavor, yet very exciting, these seafood preserves give the dishes amazing depth. Slightly more delicate than padaek, the aroma can still be a challenge for uninitiated.

Shrimp paste is ubiquitous in the cuisines of all Southeast Asian countries and like fish sauce and tiny chilies you can find it in the Asian stores in your country. I have brought mine from Malaysia (where it is called belacan) in a dry and flattened form. In the Asian stores, as well as in Laos, you can usually get it in the form of an actual paste in a glass or plastic jar.

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The name of the salad is simply “pounded papaya/cucumber” and to prepare it you need a large mortar, like the one they use in Laos. If you don’t have it, try to pound the smaller ingredients in your mortar and then move them to a larger bowl. I managed by using an old stoneware container that fitted all of the ingredients.

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Spicy Laotian cucumber salad – Tam Mak Taeng

Ingredients:

  • 4 cucumbers
  • 3 good quality ripe tomatoes
  • 1 lemon or lime
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1-3 small Asian chili peppers
  • one teaspoon of shrimp paste
  • fish sauce
  • 2-3 tablespoons of white or brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of salt

tam mak taeng lao salad ingredients

Preparation:

1. Peel the cucumbers and cut them into slim ribbons. Start with a few shallow cuts lengthwise and then change the angle and slice off fine slivers with a knife. When the scoring is no longer visible repeat the process. Move around the cucumber this way until it starts to fall apart. The soft flesh can be used for other purposes or you can cut it thinly and add to the salad. Laotians don’t really bother with perfect stripes and the salad contains ribbons of different lengths and thickness.

2. Put salt, sugar, garlic (you can use the press first), chili and shrimp paste and pound them for about 2 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes cut into big chunks without the excess juice and pound for a while. If the tomatoes have thick skin, you can first put them in boiling water for a minute and peel it.

tam mak taeng hoong salad preparation

4. Add a few splashes of fish sauce, 4 tablespoons of lime juice and the cucumbers. Mix all the ingredients lightly pounding them so that the flavors release.

5. Try and season to taste. Eat using chopsticks.

tam mak taeng salad -7048

In Laos, you can taste the salad straight out of the mortar, before it is put on a plate. The four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and spicy should be perfectly balanced and you can adjust the condiments to achieve your personal equilibrium. I like it sour, so I add a little bit less sugar and more lime juice. Laotian dishes are very spicy – for beginners I recommend using only one chili pepper. I use two and see the sweat on everybody’s foreheads (don’t worry, Laotians react likewise!). Three and more peppers are recommended only for the maniacs. Usually you get some raw veggies with the salad, like a piece of cabbage. Crunching them in between bites helps to deal with the spiciness. The perfect addition to the salad is Beerlao (a girl can dream…) or if not available, any other light lager. Yum, the real taste of Laos!

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On cherries and happiness

This is a story about fruit and about the countryside and happiness. The weekends and holidays I’ve spent outside the city are some of my best childhood memories. Wandering around, tasting every wild plant, running barefoot, rolling around in the puddles and then on sand (so-called crumbling!), lying flat on the meadow, gathering wild mushrooms, climbing trees, steering clear of the serious looking cows, drinking deliciously cold water from the well and last, but definitely not least, picking fruit. Red gooseberries, plums, first sweet-sour “close” apples from my grandparents’  apple tree, wild blackberries. There also were our own black currants, apples and my favorite, sour cherry orchard. As weird as it may sound, fruit are a part of my identity and I can’t imagine my life without them. Surprisingly, when searching through the family photo archives that are full of pictures from holiday trips, I couldn’t find even one from the childhood times in the orchards. All I have is a portrait with an apple tree from my later, teen years.

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Marcin did not spend as much time in the countryside as I did, yet he also is a fruit lover. After all, he is a grandson of a passionate professor that specialized in apple cultivation and a master of preparing fruit vodkas. Even better, bearing the name Sadowski, which comes from the Polish word “sad” (nothing sorry about it) that, in fact, translates as “an orchard”, I guess he had no other choice…

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I like to pick all fruit but my fondest memories are those of sour cherry harvest. With strawberries, it was always being bent, with apples moving around and carrying heavy buckets and crates, while the black currants were full of ugly worms. The cherries though are pure bliss. When my mind is trying to escape far away as usual, the grass tickles my feet, the smell of leaves and the juice that flows down my sleeve remind me of the here and the now. It all happens so very gently, and there is still space to fantasize between the conversations and singing. I love sour cherries and other sour fruit: it’s an explosion of taste, completely different from the tropical super sweetness which can make me nauseous sometimes.

20140717-IMGP6395-cherry picking

For many years now, we’ve traveled together for the summer holidays, missing out on at least a part of summer crops. We also were fascinated by foreign tastes, sometimes forgetting about the local fruit. I always thought of sour cherries as a Polish fruit. It turns out I was quite right. Wikipedia told me that even though we are the fourth in the world considering the acreage of the cultivation, in the sheer number of collected tons of cherries, we are number one. Our stay in Southeast Asia unleashed in me a great yearning for Polish sour fruit. Upon our return in the spring, I already impatiently awaited the summer. And now the cherries came to me, in the form of a facebook event of sour cherry picking. Then it was my move and I went outside of Warsaw to meet them. The hosts were lovely, the area beautiful and most importantly, the orchard was like a balm to my soul.

20140717-IMGP6394-cherry picking

I pit the cherries and cook them very slowly, making breaks until the preserves are naturally thick. I add sugar to taste, only at the end. I did the same with strawberries and black currants (marvelous!), and I will do so with plums, apples and pears as well. My mother is canning like crazy and I am following in her footsteps. One jar of such preserves fits almost 1,5 kilograms of cherries! And with them, I can my childhood memories, the story of the beautiful cherry-picking day, of searching through bowls full of fruit for the remaining pits (be careful while eating!), of the exhausting summer heat and the steaming pans. Some people just eat and enjoy, and I am jealous of their experience, not burdened by any inner dialogue. I sincerely am!!! Probably it was meant to be this way. But I am unable to do that, and accept the accusation of making things more complicated. But let me be myself. I am not afraid of any food but I don’t buy supermarket jams, nor many other products. I simply can’t put the symbol of equality between two jars so different. And I can only offer something good to others. So, to be satisfied with food, I have to dig deeper sometimes and, to tell the truth, my taste buds quickly adapted to goodness.

20140725-IMGP6470-cherry preserves

Apart from the cherry preserves, there has to be a cherry tart. Occasionally, I am interested in sumptuousness but as far as summer and cherries are concerned, the case is clear: simplicity rules. Make shortbread, bake it for a while, put some cherries on top, quite a lot, actually. Sweeten with whatever you find appropriate. Bake once more. Consume at the meadow.

20140725-IMGP6472-cherry tart

Next time we’ll try to make fruit vodkas, based on instructions left by Grandpa. For now, we’ve run out of cherries. Constantly pursuing happiness and dreaming of grander plans for a bright future I was again hit in the head by a glass jar. Happiness is somewhere along that road, in an orchard, in the kitchen, on a picnic. Yo!

27 weeks, 192 days, 4608 hours aka the finale of our Asian trip

Contrary to the colorful promo brochures full of permanent smiles, Thailand gave us a rather brutal welcome when we arrived for the first time. We came into the rainy deep south from Malaysia, soaked, and chilled to the bone by the bus fans. Grim and frigid faces awaited us in the wet Hat Yai. No one wanted to help us at the bus terminal and the tuk-tuk driver was determined to rip us off. Waitresses in the gloomy hotel laid asleep over magazines, not willing to move their asses to our table. My question on where to find fruit stalls was just too difficult for the receptionist to answer. The seller of outrageously expensive sticky rice with mango threw the money in my direction when I gave up on the transaction. And so on… We were able to shed those bad impressions somewhere along the way, but despite many good experiences, there still were no sparks between us and Thailand.

This time we enter the country in the far north, charged with Laotian ease, satiated with beautiful landscapes, cheerful and satisfied. After one and a half month in Laos, we feel like savages stepping into civilization. We are shocked by the billboards, Tesco, 7eleven and ATMs on every corner. We overnight in a cute guesthouse with friendly owners. Marcin jokingly yells to me from the bathroom: “Ania, there is hot water here coming straight out of the wall!” A random driver picks us up from the road into the back of his truck and drives us to the bus stop. We try new snacks and giggle with the market sellers. Twice, we are halted on the street and asked where we are heading and if we need any help. The tuk-tuk drivers are nice and fair. And so on… Oh, how nice the Thai are!

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Chiang Kong, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai – our flight back home is already booked so we speed through the north to Bangkok in a week. We don’t have time to go a little further from the civilization and we realize the cities are not really inspiring. Despite the nice people we’ve met, we still have a problem with Thailand. Our discouragement influences how we see the country. We were spoiled by so many beautiful places during the trip that we lost our interest in digging deeper in search of Thai gems. What we see at a first glimpse is a touristic product, full of characterless bars and restaurants. Numerous travel agencies offer a mix of experiences put into a form of a ready-made product. Long-neck women, Akha women, elephants, cooking classes, visa run, tickets, temples. Choose, pay, cross off your list.

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Once again are we confronted with the fact that what we see and what happens to us is strongly dependent on our way of looking at the world. All we have at our disposal is perception. It’s each one of us who decides what to focus our attention on, and this way we draw certain people and events into our life. If you think that people are stupid, these will be the ones you meet the most on your way. If you think the world is a dangerous place, most of what will reach your ears will be stories of crimes and accidents. If you are afraid to fulfill your dreams, you will mostly see people who tried and failed. And so on.

The cuisine of the north is spicy and heavy – thick noodle soup with cubes of coagulated pork blood, fermented pork sausage, salad with boiled pork. Overdosed on new tastes, exhausted by immense heat, we are not eager to try any more new dishes. We eat less and sometimes go for Vietnamese. I dream about Polish bread, butter, cheese and pickles, about our lovely sweet and sour fruit. Tropical aromas available everyday ceased to amaze us. This is a sign we are saturated with experiences and it’s time for us to go home.

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Over the last six months we have seen too many temples, eaten more than we could stomach, overcame language and cultural barriers every day, walked hundreds of kilometers, driven thousands. It’s hard to describe how wonderful our trip was and we are proud of ourselves for undertaking it. For giving ourselves so much time together and the space to ask questions on who we are and what we want, for seeing the reality from so many different perspectives. We are sad to end it but at the same time happy to begin something new.

During our second visit to Bangkok we meet the amazing woman again. There is time for watching movies together, laziness, meals and balcony conversations.

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Spending time with Ania draws my thoughts away from the irrevocable: we’re going back. It’s time to return to our harbor, let the senses and the body rest, replenish the reserves, repair what was broken, try out what we’ve learned. Over the last half year we were excited, tired, discouraged, happy, enthusiastic, euphoric, peaceful, balanced. In the past, we considered moving out of Poland or becoming full time travelers. During this trip, there were periods when we felt we had enough but these were followed by times of awe and happiness from simply being on the move. Today we see very clearly that as travelers at heart we will always go but always come back as well. After 192 days on the road, we are flying back HOME.

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To be continued.

Good bye Laos

Farewells are not our forte. Before we realize, it’s time to leave and all the plans to “just” try this one more dish / stock up on local coconut oil / take a walk to the other side of that pretty hill etc… quickly dissolve and the only thing that remains of the wonderful place are memories. I mean, how to say goodbye if you don’t know when you’re going to see each other again or if at all? Jumping from one spot to another doesn’t allow us to develop attachment but the longer we stay in one place the harder it gets to pack that backpack and hit the road once again without a tear rolling down the cheek.

We had a hard time saying goodbye to a few places in Laos and an estimated three-week stay became a month and then one and a half. We would love to stay here longer but now we have to make a run to the border. Our already extended visa is expiring again. We spend the last two days in the country traveling on local buses through the windy mountain roads between Phongsali and Thailand. On our way, we pass through another very interesting and wild part of Laos. I know I want to return here one day and see more of it. I feel it’s a farewell but I don’t have the time to stop, taste, see.

During these two days we mostly watch through the bus windows, experiencing what you could call Laos in a nutshell. We look at the mass slash and burn of the wild forests, captive slow lorises, women from various tribes descending from the mountains for trade, known and exotic species of animals barbecued along the roads, bamboo hut villages, soup shops, beautiful scenery and the omnipresent peace and ease. This country is a mix of the beautiful and the terrifying sometimes, and we try not to judge according to western standards but make an attempt to understand.

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We’re on a ramshackle bus loaded with sacks full of rice. Local farmers display their produce along the roads and we stop on a regular basis to shop or look at the caught rare species. Into the bus go huge watermelons, bags full of young bamboo shoots, sacks of eggplants as well as grilled birds, rodents and mammals. I am amazed  again and again by the small children sleeping quietly in their mothers laps all through the long journey. Two young women return to the bus with an animal resembling a weasel. It’s been gutted and now is stiff and looks like a an embalmed mummy. Attached to the front seat on a string, it merrily jumps on the curves and bumps as we go.

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During one of the breaks, I get up to take a look at the ethnic minorities on the makeshift market. Scrambling through the loaded bus I discover a whole “family” of dead rodents and birds placed in a neat row under one of the seats, probably a dinner catch. I finally manage to get out of the bus, where the women in traditional dress immediately notice the only tourists around and run to me to sell the handicrafts. I believe it’s another subgroup of the Akha tribe we’ve visited, differing in their clothing style and openness. While those women were hiding from our sight, the ones here tie their bracelets on my wrists and put earrings and traditional aprons into my hands without a shade of embarrassment.

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In Udomxai we have a last Lao dinner at the Souphailin restaurant. In a cute little rickety hut hidden away beneath the greenery we meet the owner who cooks, serves the guests and takes care of a child at the same time. It is the quintessence of a Lao meal in a family restaurant, where you should never come just an hour before your bus leaves. Nor an hour and half, for that matter. The cook is usually the wife herself, who prepares the dishes one after another. In the meantime she can even go to the nearby market to get some ingredients. Kids play around, taking care of their own business most of the time. While waiting for your order you can relax in a chair or on a podium full of cushions (there may be even a hammock if you’re lucky), read a book, sip your Beerlao and be happy.

In Souphailin you can try the traditional northern specialties such as dried beef with herbs or once again go for the ubiquitous laap. The young host dines with us, presenting proficient skills in using sticky rice to scoop pieces of hard-boiled egg into his mouth as well as doodling away on the blank pages of our guidebook.

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The last day is an arduous drive on another, full to the brim old bus in the direction of Chiang Kong. The time passes very slowly as we climb the hills with great difficulty and descend on minimal speed. Yet this is fortunate because literally every twenty kilometers or so we pass a huge Chinese truck broken down or overturned on a sharp mountain curve. One of these carried watermelons and the smashed fruit on the road create a bloody scenery. Late in the afternoon we reach the border and before we realize, we have left Laos behind on the other side of the Mekong. We feel hungry for more but also excited to get back home soon. Dear Laos, I miss you much already!

The Akha Way

In the mountainous, border territories of southern China, northern Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma live many ethnic minority groups. Some of them still adhere to a traditional life-style, with colorful outfits and unique customs. Many villages and regions tapped the touristic market, maintaining the traditional building styles and putting on traditional costumes for those Kodak moments. Yet, there still are places where guests are a rarity and life goes on according to its old rhythm. We found this in the slightly forgotten Phongsali province of northern Laos, inhabited by Akha tribes that came here from China. The Akha, especially the women, are quite characteristic in their dark indigo dresses and jewelry made of silver rings and coins.

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Phongsali is a bit Lao and a bit Chinese. The old town with its open-spaced shops, the restaurants and license plates on cars tell us it may be more of the latter.

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Here, we hook up with Sai, a guide, and travel on local buses, then on a boat, taking a rest at a Laoseng village and doing a few hours of trekking in the mountains. It all will lead us to an isolated Akha village where we’ll stay a night. Along the way, everything’s encompassed by smoke. In the dry season it lingers everywhere over slashed and burned fields. The horizon’s short, suffocated by the smoke. The visibility’s only one or two mountain chains. The heat’s pushing down on us but Sai’s a good guide, taking breaks when we indeed need them. We also have lunch and try frog, for the first time. It tastes like a slimy water chicken.

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These two days are an incredible experience on the border of reality, augmented by the fact that we’re accompanied by a rather introvert Sai. Maybe if we were there with other tourists, we’d experience the events differently. What we see becomes the only subject of conversation on the way back. I try to discipline myself, to put it all in a chronological order but I’m unable to. It all becomes a long and chaotic description unrelated to the impressions left in my head.

We’re trekking in silence, the smoky vistas unfolding around us. When we approach the first village we see indigo-clad ghosts. The women in traditional dresses move slowly and quietly, they have weaved baskets with firewood on their backs, a belt around the foreheads supporting the weight. Nobody runs to greet us, no one rises their voice, or laughs, or waves. We see only shy smiles. While crossing the village, the animals — pigs, dogs, chickens — harmoniously eat out of a trough.

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The chief’s hut, like other huts, has no windows. It’s dark inside and the smoke from the fireplace makes us cry. Women and men are like different species here – women are quiet, shy and imprisoned in complicated dresses, while men wear modern t-shirts, smoke and talk to each other. Even little girls wear headdresses, when they grow up these will become very elaborate. After tea we’re back on the trail, joined by a chief’s son who’s going to another village to look for a wife.

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The village where we’ll spend the night is located at the top of a mountain, some 1200 meters above sea level. We’re there at the sunset; a huge hog grazes on a slope right next to us, enjoying the last rays of sun. We get to the highest vantage point and out come curious boys and instantly surround us. The previous guests were here three months ago, so the kids are very interested in us and keen to get candy from Sai, too. The women cast shy glances from their huts or while returning from firewood gathering or with water in huge bamboo tubes they hold on their backs. The ones with babies have bare breasts as they believe it will protect the health of their children. Many believe that cameras can steal souls, so they turn their heads and only one agrees to a photo.

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There’s no electricity or running water in the village, so our evening ablutions come down to washing our hands and faces in the water brought from a stream down the mountain. There are no toilets, and because we’re the biggest curiosity here, we have to wait until dark to go and do our business. We spend the evening in the chief’s hut, waiting while the women, with flashlights on their foreheads, prepare food. In a dark corner a stream of light illuminates a baby being fed on the knees of a mother. Dogs are circulating around a low table, waiting for scraps that might fall to the ground. The table goes back and forth between the eating area and cooking area, the women put food on it and wait until men finish eating and only then eat themselves. We have the supper and drink greenish moonshine that’s been filtered through leaves. After the 100% non-vegetarian lunch that Sai’s offered us, we’re surprised to find only plants on our plates. Steamed leaves, cooked bamboo shoots and wild mushroom’s in soup, all foraged in the surrounding area. There’s also rice, salt and dried chillies and thin, watery sauce for dipping. The host uses his flashlight to show us what we’re eating. It’s very simple, a bit bitter but also surprisingly tasty.

After the meal, it’s time to socialize and smoke tobacco from the bong. The subdued atmosphere of the huts instantly livens up. When we begin to pull out gifts we’ve brought, all the flashlights focus their beams on us. We had doubts if we should bring anything to people whose existence depends on self-sufficiency, but the looks we get clearly tell us that any gifts will be very appreciated. The happiness is obvious and satisfying when we hand out seeds and bars of soap. It’s an intense situation and we give out many things we have with us — our everyday items. Later, a neighbor comes with a little boy in her arms. He was bitten by a bug and a part of the sting stayed in the wound. Now it is covered with puss and sores. There are no medicines here but luckily I brought some iodine so the least we can do is to disinfect the skin. The boy patiently lets me help him and does not complain at all.

The Akha have male and female sleeping areas, separated from the living quarters by curtains. We’ll sleep on the men’s side, where the elders would sleep. While we’re laying side by side with Sai and the chief’s son I wander if I’ll be able to sleep at all with the outside sounds penetrating the thin walls. It all seems to be right next to me. I’m afraid of bugs, insects or other creatures but the exhaustion takes over and I instantly sail off into the darkness.

In the morning we see a woman who in a fit of madness is throwing stones and chasing her fleeing daughter. Sai explains. The animistic beliefs and ancestor and earth worship are a source of many superstitions. The birth of twins is considered very bad luck and the twins are given liquor and poisoned. Such an event brings bad luck to the whole village. The afflicted family has to leave and follow the shamans instructions on how to appease the spirits. Only after time and offerings, the family may come back and rebuild their house. If they are poor, they may be unable to sacrifice enough animals and fulfill the shaman’s instructions. According to Sai, the woman lost her babies. The event that brought bad luck to the village, the exclusions and condemnation and her incredible sacrifice drove her mad. It was too much to bear.

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The women go out to do work in the fields or to gather plants and firewood. Boys go to school while men linger about. Usually, it’s boys who have a shot at education because girls help mothers with work. Most women in the area can speak only a dialect, not Lao. We’re going back. In another village we finally see men at work. They’re building houses. Some villagers moved from higher up because water was scarce. At a hut there’s the customary tea from a thermos flask. Most of the family’s at work, only the grandpa is smoking opium in his den while the grandma takes care of the little one and from time to time stirs indigo stored in huge barrels.

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The mountain sides are scorched for growing opium. It’s illegal, but for some Akha may be the only source of cash that can be exchanged for items otherwise unavailable. The way to the river is long. Along it we see a family going uphill; Sai says it takes days to go to city and back. First to the river, than boats and buses, a place to sleep and the same in reverse order. They’re carrying everything from corrugated roofing sheets to mattresses. At least men are participating, though the load is equally distributed. The kids are walking upfront, than loaded horses, a group of women with stuff bound on straps to their foreheads and finally men. They will leave their cargo in a village along the way and make return trips to carry it all up. It’s not easy to be Akha.

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What to eat in Laos?

The fear of food poisoning causes many people to deny themselves the exploration of Laotian food. It’s a pity, because this wonderful country offers an interesting and flavorful cuisine, one quietly hiding between two internationally famous neighbors — the Thai and Vietnamese. Perhaps the landlocked location of Laos made spreading its culture more difficult than for its western and eastern neighbors. The opinion that Lao cuisine is similar to Thai is apparently erroneous, or rather reversed, as the northeast region of Thailand – Isan – was once a Lao territory. Therefore, it’s the food of northern Thailand that retained Laotian characteristics. One way or another, influences in the whole region of Southeast Asia interpenetrate and you can find a common denominator between cuisines of any pair of countries.

In opposition to their aforementioned neighbors, the Laotians eat using bare hands. Chopsticks are only used with noodle dishes. Because of the lack of cutlery, the dishes are either dry or dense to facilitate eating, while the sticky rice, as opposed to the ordinary rice, makes for a great “scooper-upper”. Food served in restaurants strongly differs from what people eat at homes. The tourists always get a spoon and a fork but if you watch or eat with the locals, you will see that sometimes they’ll eat even a spicy noodle salad using their hands. A local version of curry (Keng Pet or Gaeng Pet) is actually a soup. It can be eaten by soaking sticky rice balls in the liquid. The meals are usually eaten on the floor, on a special bamboo mat, or by a low table.

You will have a hard time finding an oven in Laos. Most dishes are prepared on ubiquitous grills or on a clay brazier, giving them a pleasant, smoky aroma. Apart from the Thai-imported fish sauce, the favorite, very characteristic addition to Lao dishes is padaek – a local, fermented, unfiltered “mud” made of freshwater fish, much more pungent and smelly than the Thai or Vietnamese amber liquid. Monosodium glutamate, a Chinese influence, is amazingly popular and faved by Laotians, and as our cooking instructor told us, if the locals encountered a sign on the restaurant door stating “We don’t use MSG” they would just turn around and go to another place.

Laotians love eating meat. All animals (rodents, birds, frogs, insects) are a good source of edible protein. Nothing gets wasted and if a buffalo is killed, all parts of the animal are sold and eaten, such as the offal, skin, bile, blood… Laotian cuisine is also full of fresh vegetables and herbs and the cooking often starts with pounding the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, chilli and numerous aromatic leaves in a mortar. Desserts rarely appear after the meal but are eaten as snacks between the meals, usually in the form of fresh fruit.

Below you can find a list of six basic and very characteristic dishes which we recommend to try in Laos, regardless of the region.

Sticky rice aka khao niaow!

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The most distinctive element of the Laotian cuisine. This special glutinous rice variety is first soaked in water for at least four hours and then steamed in a special cone-shaped bamboo basket. Cooked rice is stored in another, cylinder-shaped basket. A Laotian family consumes a large basket of rice every day, using it as a base of almost any meal. In the local transport we often noticed packed lunch in the form of a dry piece of grilled meat and a clod of sticky rice. Apart from the white variety, we have also encountered its beautiful purple sibling.

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Jeow
The simplest Lao meal is sticky rice with a taste-carrying dip called jeow.

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There are plenty kinds of these sauces: made of tomatoes, eggplant, peanuts. The famous, jeow bong, is made of buffalo skin and chillies. In general, the veggies are first put in a hot brazier to blacken, then they’re peeled. That’s how the dip becomes distinctively smoky in taste. To eat, tear a piece of sticky rice, shape it into a ball and shovel a little bit of jeow into your mouth. No second dippings with the half eaten ball!

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Foe
Lao version of the Vietnamese pho. I’ve written about it more than once because I feel it’s a must-try. The single most popular breakfast choice which you can get in any of the eateries in the morning and often during the day. We ate it numerous times and although the quality varies greatly, some of these bowls I will keep in my memory for ever. My favorite version contains tomatoes and thin and hard rice noodles. The contents of the bowl are just a base to be enriched (“making it more perfect”) using a personal choice of additions placed on the table, including extremely spicy peppers, chilli pastes in oil, fish sauce and shrimp paste, herbs and other greens, limes, sugar and MSG crystals… We encourage you to do what the Asians do and start your day with a bowl of hot soup. It is hard to change habits from the home country but in fact it turns out much better both when it comes to taste and money in comparison to the local knock-offs of the western dishes such as instant pancakes or English breakfast with imported meat, quite expensive here and both of very low quality.

Tam Mak Hoong (papaya salad)
An absolute classic which you can get everywhere, obligatorily reeking of padaek fish sauce (the more south you go the more they add) and full of chillies that will make you cry. Because of this, it may not be the perfect meal but rater an aromatic addition to your lunch. It’s worth trying at least once. There is a similar cucumber version, also cut in thin ribbons. Variations of papaya salad are found throughout the region but apparently it was invented in Laos.

Mok pa

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Similar to the Khmer amok, mok pa is fish steamed in banana leaves. The Lao version doesn’t contain coconut milk. An aromatic paste is created in a mortar using a few kinds of herbs (dill being the leading ingredient), which is then mixed with pieces of fish and wrapped in banana leaves creating a simple, delicate and really tasty dish.

Laap / koy

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The famous salad made of minced meat and chopped greens is served for special occasions. Chicken, duck, fish, buffalo or other meats can be used. Cows are quite rare in Laos and what appears as “beef” on the menus is usually buffalo meat, which contains less fat and is therefore often described as of lower quality. In the restaurants, the meat for laap is fried first, but Lao people prefer a raw version accompanied by lao-lao (the local whiskey / moonshine). The salad appears to be mostly meat but preparing it we were surprised how much greens can be mixed in, such as spring onion, cilantro, lemongrass, mint, banana flower, long beans, sprouts…

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In the buffalo version of the salad, buffalo bile is often added to tenderize the meat and add some well-loved bitterness. Offal is also a popular addition, often in the form of finely chopped intestines. In restaurants, you can find vegetarian versions of laap, for example with tofu or mushrooms. It’s delicious, too!

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